Category Archives: reading as a writer

Is Anyone Out There?

Photo: NASA

One of my lifelong interests is stars, planets, galaxies, and everything about them. Today, I saw an article about seeing the light from galaxies that were formed over 3 billion years ago. They are so far away from us, it has taken 3 billion years for their light to reach us. Distance in the universe often confounds my imagination. I was thinking, in response to that article, that the blinking lights in the night sky that have always fascinated me are not necessarily single stars but probably entire galaxies. Those tiny blinking lights. Does sentient life in those tiny blinking lights ever look to their sky and see us?

As a writer, I often feel like a tiny blinking light in a massively gigantic universe, and I’ve struggled to find how to be inviting as a writer and encourage readers to read my stories. After all, as a tiny blinking light I am most likely an entire galaxy of planets, stars, black holes, and stardust. And I’m really not 3 billion years away, I’m right here. My stories are right here, too. But how would I ever know if anyone came to visit?

Is anyone out there?

Hope Clark, in her Funds for Writers newsletter several weeks ago, wrote about her perception that nobody is reading anymore. She has that perception because she’s not receiving the responses that she used to receive — at her blog, via email, with book reviews. If people are reading, she’s concluded, they’ve stopped “talking” about it.

Photo: Marina Shemesh

She has a point, but I’m not certain that I agree completely. It’s only been in the last 10 years or so that I’ve considered responding to an author about a book of theirs I’d read. Before that, I read and read, and it never occurred to me to try to reach out to an author to let him or her know how much I enjoyed their work. Now that I’m an author myself, I know how it feels to read a person’s review of my work, or to have a reader comment here, or to send me an email. It’s wonderful to know that my work has been read. Like most writers, I don’t like writing and sending my stories into the black hole at the center of our galaxy and never knowing what happened. Up until 10 years ago, though, I would have said isn’t that to be expected?

Now, we have so many ways to connect with people whether or not they are strangers.  One of the things that I learned over 10 years ago — and it made me want to find a cave somewhere in which to write — was that writers must be accessible in some way to publicize their writing. Traditional publishers expect writers to market their work as well. So writers need websites and/or blogs. They need author pages at all the places online where books are sold, and they need to be an active presence on GoodReads, Facebook, Twitter, and any other social media they can find time to join and be a presence on. It exhausts me just thinking about it.

One of the things I decided to do, though, to be a presence as a writer is to write reviews of books I’ve been reading. I read voraciously — new and old books, fiction, nonfiction, good and bad. I post my reviews at GoodReads, and then if the book is relatively new, I try to also post the review where others will see it and can immediately buy it, like Amazon and B&N. What a difference it would make if all readers took a half hour (or less) after reading a book and reviewed it online? It’s not a big deal, either, and doesn’t have to be a Pulitzer Prize-winning review. Just what you thought of the book and why, and if you’d recommend it or not.

Writers will know then that their work hasn’t disappeared down a black hole, and they are not alone, a tiny blinking light far away in a black sky.

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Re-reading a Classic: “To Kill a Mockingbird”

Today in Minnesota, our weather resembles an Alabama summer day. The Finches would recognize this kind of weather and the storms that follow it. While re-reading Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird recently, I was aware of the weather that she described, especially during the summer. They didn’t have air conditioning in 1935 in Alabama. No one moved very fast when the sun floated high in the summer sky, the temperature was north of 90, and the humidity interfered with normal evaporation. But children seem unaffected by weather extremes, especially the children in Lee’s novel.

The first time I read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, I was only a little older than Scout Finch. At that time, I was also under the influence of the movie starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. We had gone as a family to see the movie, and afterward my parents allowed me to read the novel, one of the first adult novels I’d read. In my young mind, I wanted Atticus to be my father, Jem my brother, and I wanted to be Scout. As a family we talked about the movie, but I didn’t talk about the book with anyone. Talking about it could dilute its power I thought.

Reading Lee’s novel as an adult and a writer is a much different experience.  From the first sentence I was acutely aware of the distinctive narrative voice Lee created to tell this story. I knew immediately that it was an adult Scout although there is no clue as to how old she is when she’s telling the story. There’s also no clue as to her audience. So it is as if she’s speaking directly to me as the reader. This technique was pure brilliance for this particular story. It gave Lee the opportunity to scrutinize the adult world of that time and place through an intelligent child’s eyes, one sensitive to her brother’s moods and curious about everything and everyone. Jean Louise, “Scout,” Finch is by far one of those memorable characters that can follow a reader for years after completing the novel.

Atticus is another. Far from perfect — and Scout notes his imperfections when she notices them — he’s a man who’s a single father at a time that would have been unusual, and he doesn’t seem to have any plans to marry again anytime soon. This was something I loved about him this time around. He stands up to his sister and anyone else who would try to tell him how to lead his life or suggest that it was time he marry again. And I loved the way he defended Calpurnia — the only mother Scout had ever known — as well as treated her with the utmost respect. When I was a kid, I thought Atticus was about as far different from my own father as any two people could get. But on this reading, I realized that they actually shared a similar philosophy about relating to others. With my father, that philosophy actually hid his deep prejudices from public view.

My favorite scenes in this book have followed me from childhood until now. The first is the scene of a conversation Scout has with Atticus on their front porch in the evening of a day that has been particularly trying for Scout at school. Atticus explains to Scout the notion of empathy — imagining yourself in another person’s skin and his life to understand his point of view better. Another is the extended scene of the mad dog when Calpurnia calls Atticus home to deal with it and how surprised Scout and Jem are at their father’s hidden talent. You can live with someone and still not know everything about him or her. The scene in front of the jail at midnight when Atticus guards Tom Robinson from a potential lynch mob, and Scout, Jem, and Dill show up to protect Atticus. The school scene when the children are back in school after Tom Robinson’s trial and Cecil Jacobs does a current events report on Hitler’s persecution of the Jews in Germany. The teacher, without a hint of irony, explains to the class that it’s wrong to persecute the Jews and it would not happen in America because America is a democracy, and the persecution comes from being prejudiced against the Jews, and just how wrong it is to be prejudiced against anyone in America because America is a democracy. What a sly writer Harper Lee was! And to this day, I still see a very young Robert Duvall as Boo Radley, standing in the corner of Jem’s room.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons via MGN

Harper Lee’s writing inspired me to work hard at my own writing during the last two weeks. It has made me take special notice of the narrative voice I’ve chosen for different pieces, and how I’ve created the tone of the work. It’s made me think about how she accomplished the scenes she included and why she structured them the way she did. But the most important effect of this novel on me from this reading is feeling a kinship with Harper Lee as a writer, understanding what she probably went through during the writing process, and admiring and respecting this inspiring novel all the more.

BOOK REVIEW: “Our Blue Earth” by Richard Carr

In December of 2014, I wrote my last review of Richard Carr’s poetry. Earlier this year, I learned that not one but two new collections of poetry by Richard Carr had been published. Both were available at Amazon where I purchased them. The first, Our Blue Earth, I’ll review today. The second, Fitzpatrick, I’ll review at a later date.

The first thing that startled me about Our Blue Earth was the cover: a large black crow regarding me as if daring me not to read the book and what might happen if I didn’t. Crows also appear often in the poems, sometimes as part of the scenery but most often as what I took to be an ominous descriptor of something — a dream, a voice, a place as in “crow territory.”

That night in my old bed/in the old house I dream/of this: A crow/standing on the top of a telephone pole/throws back his head. There is no sound.

The “blue earth” of the title has a double meaning of sorts. The first meaning of the town of Blue Earth in southern Minnesota, or the county of Blue Earth in Minnesota. It is a county of prairie and farms, and farms and farming figure prominently in this collection; and where Richard Carr grew up. But “blue earth” could also be our planet, known as “blue” earth (or blue marble) thanks to NASA photos.

The poems inside focus on Blue Earth, Minnesota, but I read them as being also about planet earth, about humanity in a larger sense. I don’t know if Carr intended that. As a writer, I know that readers bring so much more to a piece of writing collectively than what the author or poet brings alone.

Carr in his dedication calls the poems in this collection “persona” poems. What does that mean? I think it means that the pronoun “I” that he uses in the majority of the poems does not refer to Carr himself, but to a separate narrator “I,” giving distance to what “I” experiences in the poems. I was startled by Carr’s use also of “we” and especially “you” in the poem “Asked to Recall” — the only poem in the collection that pronoun appears as the subject. Carr also steps way back in a couple poems, writing about “the boy.” While these poems are not personal in the sense that they are about Carr, he must draw on his experience growing up on a farm in Blue Earth, his family, and his departure and returns. One way of examining a life is by creating a persona to inhabit that life which is what I think Carr is doing in these poems. As a result, he also pulls the reader  deeper into the poems, giving the “I” to the reader, or addressing the reader as “you” or including the reader in the “we.”

These poems inhabit an unsentimental place where memory can be dark, gritty, and sour. Nature exists and just is rather than being either benevolent or evil. Life goes on no matter what happens. Carr’s images startle, haunt, and provoke — “a wizened politburo of crows,” “a feather of mist passes on the water,” or “night hauls its groggy paunch across the plains.” My favorite poem in this collection is a lovely sonnet, “Serpent Wind.” Carr manages to take something as common as wind and make it into something truly creepy:

A steady west wind slithers in the screen,/pulls through the open window, flex and glide,/a careful snake, a voiceless hiss, unseen/except the sleepy curtains move aside.

Sorrow lives in Blue Earth, as does confusion, resentment, disbelief, and acceptance. I would call this collection probably as close as Carr may come to writing personal poems, i.e. poems about himself and his experience and acknowledging them as such. But if you’d like to explore a different world from your own and feel like it is in fact yours, I highly recommend Richard Carr’s Our Blue Earth.

“Perceval’s Secret” FREE through April 7!

Perceval’s Secret is FREE through April 7 at B&N.com, Kobo.com and Amazon.com

Synopsis: In June 2048, American Evan Quinn conducts the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in Vienna, Austria as Americans and Chinese conduct talks in that city about their economic relationship to prevent a global economic meltdown. Evan defects to be free of American oppression and brings a “Day of the Jackal” secret with him that could demolish the talks and ignite a global war. Viennese Police Inspector Klaus Leiner, convinced Evan is an American spy, especially after CIA operative Bernie Brown takes an interest in him, organizes a surveillance operation to collect evidence for his arrest. Evan must stay ahead of the police and CIA while establishing his new life and music career. He believes he’s left America behind but has he? Whom can he trust? Finally, he realizes that his secrets could make him his own worst enemy or provide his best chance for survival.

Pricing update: As of March 25, the only Amazon site offering Perceval’s Secret for free is Amazon US. 

Sampling of Reviews at Amazon:

“A dense psychological suspense thriller full of surprises.”

 A chilling story of the world’s near future, with an emphasis not on the amazing technology, but on the personal relationships people have with technology, politics, and each other.”

This book is a well-crafted spy mystery/cold war drama with interesting details about classical music, conducting, and levels within people. It also works in post traumatic stress from a non-military vantage point. The ending leaves this open for additional books and I hope to see a new one.”

Do you like to read suspenseful novels that take you into a different world of experience as well as a different country? If so, check out my thriller novel Perceval’s Secret. It’s available at Amazon, B&N.com and Kobo.com for FREE through April 7, 2018.

 

Nothing Stops the Books Giveaway: Want to win a Kindle Oasis?

In addition, if you’re a member of BookBub.com (or want to become a member), there’s a big promotion going on from March 23-29 sponsored by LitRing. You can enter a drawing to win one of two Kindles Oasis by clicking on C. C. Yager’s name on the giveaway page here. Her BookBub author page will come up and just click to follow her there. Voila! You are now entered to win a Kindle Oasis!

 

After entering the drawing, hop over to Amazon or B&N.com  or Kobo.com and get your FREE copy of Perceval’s Secret to read!

Being a Fearless Writer

One of my vivid memories from working with an editor on Perceval’s Secret: She told me that I was a fearless writer. Why? Because I had followed my main character where he was going instead of stopping him and making him do something safe and acceptable. The choice Evan makes toward the end shocked me when I wrote it in a white heat. It was as if he controlled me rather than the other way around. It took me a week to recover.  But when I read over what I’d written, I realized that as shocking as it was, it was still inevitable given Evan’s thought processes and background. I made sure that the set-up was there, i.e. the reader could follow Evan’s thoughts throughout the book and right up to the moment he makes that shocking decision.

Stephen King just reminded me of this experience of mine working with the editor on my novel. I had not thought of King as a fearless writer, actually.  Up until this past week, I’d read only one of his novels, Salem’s Lot, which hadn’t impressed me much, but then I’m not big into vampires and horror stories. I do love mysteries, thrillers, police procedurals, and serial killer stories. It’s very satisfying to me when the perp is caught and right prevails in these kinds of stories. The King novel I’m reading right now falls into the serial killer/thriller/mystery genre and it’s titled Mr. Mercedes.  It’s the first book in a trilogy with the retired police detective Bill Hodges as the main character.

In Mr. Mercedes, however, King reveals just how fearless a writer he is. He not only takes the reader inside the serial killer’s mind and life, he also takes the reader inside the minds and lives of his victims. This makes their victimhood all the more devastating, also ratcheting up the reader’s emotions to be absolutely behind Bill Hodges as he tries to figure out who the killer is and catch him. It’s one thing to set up victims as King does, and quite another to set up the reader to fall in love with a character who looks safe but turns out to not be safe at all. When I read that section of the novel, I was shocked.  I also admired what King had done. He’d been fearless.

Being a fearless writer can be very, very difficult. After all, we want our work to be read and loved.  We want readers to love our characters, hate our villains. But readers can smell a cop-out a mile away. Writers who are fearful about following their characters’ leads will wrest control of the story away from them and create more “acceptable” action, dialogue, and motivations. That is, being cautious about what they write, not only in subject matter but also in the types of characters in their stories. No extremes. No graphic violence. No questionable ethics or motivations. This caution may reflect the writer’s sensibility, core beliefs, and desire to please. But readers understand that darkness lives in the hearts of all humans, and it’s far more interesting to show characters wrestling with that darkness than ignoring it.

Let your characters tell their stories, be who they are, and behave the way they will. They need you to write and share their stories, exactly as they are, not the way you might think the reading public wants it, or the way you’re most comfortable writing it. Being a writer is not comfortable.